New Face, Same War
If you believe what you read in the papers, President Bush will go on television tonight to announce that he will adopt the Petraeus plan as his own, if for no other reason than it really is his own.
I'm not in the business of offering tactical advice to the administration, and it's not in the business of taking it. But if I were Josh Bolten (I think he's still in the White House; I can't vouch for anyone else), I'd try mightily to keep the president off the tube.
The whole point of the Petraeus PR offensive, after all, is to decouple the war from the president. If it's the president's war, no one will vote to keep it going.
Respondents to the New York Times-CBS News poll released Monday were asked whom they'd trust most "with successfully resolving the war in Iraq." Fully 68 percent said military commanders; 21 percent said Congress. A mind-boggling 5 percent said the Bush administration.
Five percent? Five? More Americans believe that Elvis walks among us than trust Bush to get us out of Iraq.
The administration knows this, which is why it was necessary to invent Gen. David Petraeus and his plan. It is why the president spent the past month invoking the general every time he spoke about the war and investing the general with strategic wisdom and moral authority that presidents usually claim for themselves. If the war is to continue fundamentally unchanged, so that Bush can stagger to the finish line of his presidency without having to acknowledge the disasters he inflicted on Iraq and on America's good name, someone with more credibility than he would have to be found to justify its continuation.
The administration had already run through a dozen raisons d'etre for the war. The latest -- we're helping the tribes defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq; we're helping promote reconciliation in Baghdad, or a devolution of authority to the provinces, or both; we're nation-building toward a soft partition; we're working toward limiting the civil war when we leave even though we're arming the rival factions because of our immediate tactical needs; we're buying time for the Maliki government to settle the civil strife it's fomenting; we're fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq so we don't have to fight it here and because our Iraqi occupation doesn't leave us with a large enough force to do anything about the real al-Qaeda in Pakistan -- don't really pack much of a punch.
In our own Civil War, the moral urgency of the Union cause expanded during the conflict, which began as a war to preserve the Union and concluded not only as that but also as a war to abolish slavery and renew democracy. In Iraq, our cause has grown smaller and murkier with each passing month. In his Senate testimony Tuesday, Petraeus was so immersed in explicating ephemera that when old John Warner suddenly asked him if keeping the war going really made America safer, Petraeus could do no better than say, "Sir, I don't know, actually."
Failing to come up with a more compelling message, the administration clearly decided that it had to come up with a more credible messenger. The Iraqi army may not have stood up so that U.S. forces could stand down, but Petraeus stood up so Bush could stand down.
Indeed, the Petraeusization of the sales pitch is necessary precisely because the war itself isn't changing. The president and his general are proposing to reduce U.S. forces by next July to about the level they were at in November 2006, when the American people went to the polls and voted to change course in Iraq. They are not proposing to reduce forces beneath that level. The underlying sectarian enmities that have plunged Iraq into civil war haven't abated in the slightest. American soldiers are dying to protect Iraqis from Iraqis, to shift the balance of power to Shiites in this province and to Sunnis in that. The war remains a porker, though Petraeus has done his best to dab on the lipstick.
For the president and his party, though, Petraeus is messenger and message rolled into one. It's his war now, they say; he has begun the war anew; all they are saying is give Petraeus's war a chance. He enables Republican presidential candidates to avoid breaking with the president while at the same time not having to mention the president's name. The general enables Republican legislators to attack Democrats for squishiness without having to bring up Bush.
In the end, I don't think Petraeusization will succeed. The American people will understand it's the same stinking war. And for those who don't, George Bush will go on television tonight to drive that point home.